Drum gating has been one of the most frequently used techniques to isolate drums both in the studio and on stage as far back as I can remember. For a lot of engineers, it isn’t even a second thought – it’s a must-have.
The problem with this “easy solution” is that it’s a complete and utter time suck for minimal payoff and effectiveness.
You spend so much setup time setting your threshold levels, trying to make sure you’re not missing any lighter hits (snare rolls anyone?), and then constantly messing with the release when no two hits match. What seems like a convenience for so many engineers actually results in a messy, ineffective process.
What else could you be doing with the time you spend gating your drums?
Get Better Drum Recordings
I’m a huge advocate of getting it right at the source, and no amount of gating is going to save poorly recorded drums.
Instead of spending all of your time trying to fix the bleed on your tom mics, why not spend that time making them sound like a single, cohesive instrument.
Take the time to critically listen to your drums. Adjust your mic placement and experiment with how distance improves or hinders your sound. Learn to tune drums, and make sure that they’re not only in tune with each other, but that they’re tuned to the song you’re recording.
Each of these elements of a good drum recording take time to learn, and the results you get will vary due to equipment, drummers & rooms you’re recording in. The payoff from learning proper drum recording technique will benefit you more than any level of gating will though.
Try Some New Compression Techniques
There are a lot of uses for compression and your drum sounds will be some of the most forgiving when experimenting with pushing them to new limits.
While we’ve done some deep dives into the “out there” techniques that use compression, saturation & distortion, you can experiment with how compression can change your sound without making it obvious to the listener.
One of the most common drum compression techniques is parallel compression. By learning the in’s and out’s of parallel compression, you should be able to start dialing punchy, focused drum tones while still maintaining the liveliness of the original recording.
Once you’re comfortable with the concept of parallel compression, further processing can be done to compress your kicks, snares & toms independently of each other. This allows you to make surgically accurate mix decisions on each element of the kit.
Redefine Your Bussing Approach
Do you have a strategy to how you’re grouping your instruments once you get to mix everything? Are you someone that sets up busses/aux tracks as needed, or do you go into it with a plan?
If you’d rather fly blind, more power to you. That kind of flexibility can be freeing in a sense, but it can also be burning up your precious time.
If you’re ready to start making mix decisions that enable you to work faster and more intuitively, reconsider how you set up busses.
Particularly large mixes seem to benefit the most from a good bussing strategy. For me, this means setting up the busses I know I’m going to want to use ahead of time. Drum bus? Guitars? Vocals? Vocal effects? They’re all there from the start.
The best part of working with digital recordings is that there’s very little reason not to set these up early on. Most DAWs will let you save mix templates, so you can literally set them up, label them, and load them up the same way every time.
If you end up needing to add more, there’s nothing stopping you from doing so. And if you decide not to use all of them? Deleting the unused busses just takes a second.
Treating Your Drums Differently
Gates destroy drums. It’s a harsh truth, but there’s no way a gate can accommodate the attack, sustain & release of every tom or snare hit without some quality loss.
On one end, you’re fighting with attack times & making sure you’ve found the sweet spot for your threshold. On the other, you’re clipping tails in some instances and letting bleed through in others. It’s enough to tear any tom fill apart.
Rather than reaching for a bunch of gates on your next session, try something new.
Many engineers I’ve worked with have found a solution in filter-based processing, which can be just as tedious to automate, but with much more natural results than gates provide.
We built Tominator as a quick and easy solution for drum bleed using the same filter-based approach with a bit of magic to do the automation for you. The best part is that it cleans up your drums without any of the destructive and unforgiving results that you end up with when gating.
What would you do with more time in your day?
If you could give up the time you spend gating drums in the average session, what would you put that time towards? Come share your thoughts on the Joey Sturgis Fan Forum and get tips from like-minded engineers on how they’re moving past gates toward a better solution.